How to Photograph Natural Looking Portraits

Creating relaxed portraits isn't complicated in any way shape or form, but you do need a system. Here’s a step by step.

1. Get to know your subject
Even if it’s just a little small talk, you've got to take a second to break the ice with some informal conversation. Always try as hard as possible to be yourself, so they'll get to know you and be comfortable with you from the start. Your style of photography is an extension of your personality, so it’s really important that people will feel comfortable with you. It helps them feel safe and open to give you their genuine selves at a portrait session, and it will help you get to know them as well. Once you start shooting, have a pretty solid feel for your clients. Know what they need from you to help them be at their best.

2. Plan on a few shots to break the ice
Always expect the first 10 or so shots to be junk. If you're nervous and your subject is also nervous, that just doesn't equal awesome. Does that mean you wait for nerves to settle before you start shooting? Absolutely not. Get in there, get working and things will loosen up within just a few minutes. It’s like jumping into the ocean. When you wade out and take forever to get in, it’s a lot harder than just plunging in and letting your body adjust to the temperature.

3. Make your location work for you
When you get to a location, make sure that you already have an idea of your client’s personality. At this point, it’s a matter of finding a location within the location that is going to help both of you really shine. If they’re a little shy, don't take them into the middle of a crowded park and expect them to cuddle up and give you something sexy to work with for their shoot. You'll need to be familiar with the location so you'll know a more private place you can take them so they can be comfortable enough to be at their best and you can still feel inspired and make their shoot rock. This is hard for sometimes, because you'll pay a lot more attention to the available light than what you do to what’s happening in the background. You do have to sacrifice that awesome light for comfortable clients. You just have to remind yourself that in the end, a well lit picture that looks stiff and awkward is a lot worse than an image with light that’s maybe only so/so but has a good genuine connection from your subjects.

4. Help it happen
Like mentioned above, you can’t just stand back and wait for magic. At a wedding, sure, of course, because people are experiencing an event and you’re job is to capture it as it unfolds. A portrait session is a whole different kind of animal . . . 99.9% of the time with regular subjects (ie not trained professional models) you’ve got to give some basic direction. You also can’t get in there and say, “Ok, hold hands, head turned at exactly a 80 degree angle. . . WAIT! Not that far! I said 80 degrees for crying out loud!”

What you do with a portrait session is as simple as getting your subjects seated/standing in a way that is compositionally sound within your frame. Then step back and let them “work it.” Tell them just to be themselves. If it’s a couple, tell them to just be into each other. Make them laugh. Make them smile. Ask them to pretend you're not there and just snuggle up. Let them do their thing.

Give your subjects an activity to participate in. Let them do their thing while you capture the magic moments that's happening naturally. If it’s a family portrait for example, try to tell mom and dad to remember that you're there. Otherwise you may end up with a lot of pictures of the back of someone’s head etc. 

5. Get in there
If you want to shoot your portraits with fixed focal length lenses, that means that your feet are your zoom. Guess what, if you want a tight shot, that means you're nearly right up on top the subject with your lens. This may sound uncomfortable to some of you, but it will help your subjects and you'll feel like a team. You can create a real harmony together and end up with real, genuine, connected images, and new friends to boot. 

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